Staring into the LYT – Timothy Menard and Nicholas Johnson
August 30, 2019 - Interview by Hilary Davidson. Edited for content.
How a startup company found a niche for traffic management solutions.
Dubbed as an infrastructure disruptor, the traffic signal optimization company LYT, sat down with me to discuss their roots, how they discovered a need in the market, and taking the plunge into startuplandia.
Founded by two former Tesla engineers, the company resides at Prospect Silicon Valley where they have been using the Intelligent Traffic Systems Lab to test traffic prioritization algorithms. They recently changed their name to LYT (pronounced “light”) and are making serious headway as they work towards optimizing traffic signals for transit agencies and someday all vehicles.
Hilary Davidson, Prospect Silicon Valley: How did LYT get started in this space?
Nicholas Johnson, Co-Founder of LYT: We were originally thinking of getting information to autonomous cars, sending data between infrastructure and vehicles. But we found that data was not useful if a car already has ADAS sensors installed. We felt that there had to be value in connected vehicles so we wanted to research the space and test our own hypothesis.
Tim Menard, Co-Founder of LYT: So then we thought, “how do we get more information from roadside to cars?” We built a prototype in Southern California for buses to use digital street signs. We created our own version of Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) radios, to run tests on UCI’s campus. We got tired of collecting SD cards full of data every week so we added cellular connectivity and partnered with the buses on campus to collect data 16 hours every day from our digitized road network. We learned a lot doing this project, but like so many founders were more focused on the engineer not the customer.
We quickly realized from customer discovery that the technology was great, but the value proposition didn’t meet their needs. What we did learn was how traffic lights worked and realized that our roads knew almost nothing about what was driving on them.
HD: So how did you get from that realization to LYT?
NJ: We sat down and brainstormed a number of ideas thinking through what we could test as soon as possible. We asked ourselves, “What do we care about solving and can we solve it?”
The final answer was simple, we wanted to improve all traffic. We learned we could use cities’ infrastructure and other data sources to optimize how traffic lights are timed. We are both still shocked that there are traffic lights in San Jose that have not be updated in over 10 years. We started calling cities and that lead us to meet with Gary Miskell, the CTIO of Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) who gave us background knowledge of how they currently implemented transit signal priority. This discovery gave us our first product roadmap and led us to build a similar product but with new technology that is more intelligent and cheaper.
NJ: Transit agencies work in every city, so that’s where we saw an opportunity to take real-time transit data, aggregate it, make new traffic models, and sell this service to the transit agency, improving the quality of their service. The important part was we could control the traffic lights, optimize them, and improve them using software running in the cloud not locally in the city.
That’s how we landed at Prospect Silicon Valley in March 2018, where we’ve been using the ITS Lab for testing these solutions, receiving commercialization support and working with San Jose’s DOT.
HD: Did you always know that you were going to start a company?
NJ: I knew I was going start a company before graduating college. When I met Tim and we started working together, I saw the opportunity to take the plunge sooner and work with someone with similar passions as me. We applied for an NSF grant, it was a low risk way to try something new.
TM: I had known since 2013 when I was working on my thesis paper for grad school. There was a lot of stuff going on in the next generation of vehicles, but all of the other applications weren’t being developed. I knew that if we could do wireless transmission of vehicle communication then we could get information, that isn’t necessarily safety related, but critical in its own way.
At the time, I was working at Tesla, met Nicholas in the back of a Model S on a company trip, and started discussing bigger ideas. We started writing the NSF grant together and strategizing our direction. I decided to focus solely on developing the company, and left a few months before Nicholas. We received the NSF grant in December of 2016 and Nicholas came on board full-time in January.
HD: That’s awesome! Any advice for other startup founders?
NJ: You learn a lot through trial and error. We took a Udacity class on startups that was required for all NSF grant funded companies which focused on customer discovery and learned about the importance of talking to customers. Come up with a hypothesis and talk to people. Check against your assumptions, they’re usually wrong.
TM: Do the Starbucks test… take $100 to Starbucks and buy coffee for 10 people asking if they would buy your product right now. Do this before you build anything! You’re the easiest person to fool, so don’t continue to ask people in the same social circle. Expand into a new area and find what “Starbucks” means to you. And don’t think you can’t reach someone at the top. Be a person, and people will tell when you’re trying to do something meaningful.
HD: With the new name and live deployments in San Jose what is the next challenge you see for your company?
TM: The rebranding helps make the company feel more modern and is really a change that leads to our next focus, and that is growth and scaling the product to more cities and transit agencies. As we collect more data, refine the product and software for transit signal priority, and grow our traffic management suite, we want to expand its coverage as fast as possible. Our next major challenge will be learning to navigate government sales quickly so that we can sustain growth and meet our larger vision.
HD: What would you like to be your closing remarks to other founders who want to work with government agencies to have large impacts?
NJ: It’s really hard, they have a lot of red tape and road blocks, but the reward and benefits are great once you overcome a few of them… a few times. We see them as partners since the larger vison of the LYT platform will tie together so many stakeholder’s data in the future. Right now, the government has been our biggest ally and really helped LYT find a solution to focus and address transportation’s current short comings.
TM: We wouldn’t be where we are today without the support of so many government organizations at so many different levels. The opportunities are there, you just have to be persistent and the door will open if you can show value.